Monday brought an eerie calm to Maseru, the capital of the small, mountainous country of Lesotho. Police didn’t show up for work, the courts were closed, and the streets were largely empty. The looting and rioting that had accompanied the disputed election of 1998 was not repeated. Only the walls of police stations, which were riddled with bullet holes, betrayed signs of the weekend’s violence. That, and the fact that the head of Lesotho’s government was nowhere to be found.
Two days earlier, Thomas Thabane, the prime minister, had fled to South Africa’s Free State province to escape what he described as a military coup. Lesotho, nicknamed the “Kingdom in the Sky,” is perched 4,500 feet above sea level and entirely surrounded by South Africa. Military coups have repeatedly threatened Lesotho’s fractured democracy since the country gained independence from the British in 1966. But this time, it seems, no one is quite sure if a coup has taken place or not. Military officials have denied talk of an attempted insurrection. Thabane, who returned home on Wednesday, has waffled on the severity of the situation; at times, he’s portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiratorial military junta, while alternatively claiming that he is “not a refugee” and was merely visiting his daughter in South Africa.
Compared with the many other conflicts around the world today, Lesotho’s may seem minor. But the country’s political instability doesn't only affect Lesotho's 2 million inhabitants. South Africa has invested heavily in Lesotho’s Highlands Water Project, a five-dam, $5-billion system that provides 780 million cubic meters of water a year to South Africa, and turmoil in Lesotho could interfere with the supply of water to major South African cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The nation is also just two years removed from one of its only violence-free elections. As Michael J. Jordan recently wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, the 2012 campaign also produced “what some call the first and only coalition government in all of Africa.” Many hoped that the smooth transfer of power would serve as a new standard for democratic transition—in Lesotho and the region more broadly. “If you have an electorate here that participates very peacefully, but there’s another setback, that would be a great betrayal,” a South African law professor said at the time. “It would show that the leaders are not as mature as the followers.” Lesotho has now suffered that setback.
So what exactly is going on in Lesotho? What's clear so far is that there was a major confrontation over the weekend between the nation’s military, which supports Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, and the police force, which is loyal to Thabane. The fighting began on Saturday when soldiers raided several police stations and killed one officer, ostensibly in an effort to confiscate weapons, including assault rifles, that the police were allegedly distributing to young Thabane-allied political activists. The military also reportedly surrounded Thabane’s home.
The origins of the conflict stretch back to 2012, when a shaky three-way alliance of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), the All Basotho Convention (ABC), and the Basotho National Party (BNP) took power. The coalition gradually broke down, however, and in March lawmakers called for a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister, a member of the ABC. Thabane responded, in June, by suspending parliament and preventing the vote from taking place—a decision supported by Lesotho’s King Letsie III, who, like the queen of England, occupies a ceremonial position in the country. Metsing, the leader of the LCD, urged people to take to the streets on Monday, September 1 to protest Thabane’s moves.
As the demonstrations approached, the military claimed that police officers were planning to arm the Under The Tree Army—a radical youth group preparing to take action against the anti-Thabane protesters—and stormed police stations to, as they put it, ensure that the rallies remained peaceful. The raids were led by Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, whom Thabane had tried to remove from office (Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who had been groomed to replace Kamoli, survived an assassination attempt on Saturday).
South African President Jacob Zuma, and the 15-nation Southern African Development Commitee (SADC), which is chaired by the Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe, are now facilitating talks among Lesotho’s fractious parties. But Zuma’s involvement presents its own complications. The South African leader is beset by scandals at home and has meddled in Lesotho’s politics in the past. Reports indicate that South African special forces may have aided Thabane’s escape from Lesotho (South African police escorted Thabane back to Lesotho on Wednesday). And Zuma may have stoked opposition against Thabane by introducing the prime minister to the Gupta brothers, two regional investors from India who are believed to enjoy a too-close-for-comfort relationship with Zuma’s government and who recently received diplomatic passports from Thabane, allegedly in exchange for personal favors. The advance of coalition politics and parliamentary democracy in the region hinges, in part, on a sustainable resolution to the crisis.